Getting a child into sports and keeping them there is one of the best decisions a parent will make. While your kids do it for the fun, research on the life-long benefits of a sports experience gives parents even more motivation to schlep kids to those practices. Contrary to the “dumb jock” myth, interscholastic sports participation has a measurable, positive educational impact on both boys and girls from diverse socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. Betsey Stevenson, an economist from Wharton, found that it’s not just that kids already destined to do well play sports, but that playing sports actually results in more education and higher incomes – for boys and girls. In addition, a sports experience changes a girl’s health trajectory; preventing heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis, tobacco and drug use, unwanted teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, depression and suicide. To date, the very best known protection from obesity into adulthood is a high school sports experience. Can I get a “wow!”?
Celebrate the Successes with National Girls and Women in Sports Day
So, it is with good reason that we take time to celebrate the short statute that has caused nothing less than a revolution in sports – and indeed in education. Today is National Girls and Women in Sports Day, a time to acknowledge where we are and thank those women and men who gave a good chunk of their professional lives to Title IX and athletics, including Donna de Varona, Christine Grant, Birch Bayh and Billie Jean King, to name a very few. Their life’s work has helped a generation of female athletes that have benefited from Title IX, such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Sheryl Swoops, Aimee Mullins, Jessica Mendoza, Abby Wambach, Jennie Finch, Lisa Leslie, Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh, Sanya Richards, and Mia Hamm, who continue to inspire and encourage our nation’s girls to break down the barriers that limit their potential.
The Promise of Title IX Remains Elusive
In addition to our celebration, we need to keep expanding opportunities for girls to play and live physically active lives. The gaps are still substantial; high schools provide our daughters with 1.3 million fewer sports opportunities than our sons, and collegiate women have just 42% of sports opportunities, despite being 57% of the student body.
The Premise of Equality in Education and Sports Remains Popular, Despite Frequent Title IX-Bashing
The law enjoys enthusiastic support around the country. A recent Mellman poll, of over 1000 respondents, found that about 80percent of men, women, Democrats, Republicans, independents, and people with and without children all support Title IX. It seems odd that there are still voices that contest the premise of equality. And yet, a small group of people is out to convince us all that Title IX is what’s wrong with sports. It’s a one-sided pounding -- men’s sports good, Title IX bad -- particularly when a school regrettably drops a men’s sport.
Decision-makers dropped programs to avoid complying with the law in other contexts, and the comparison is worth noting. In the 1950s some communities chose to close swimming pools and golf courses, rather than integrate. The Supreme Court said the law just required equality, and that civil rights did not require communities maintained those pools, even if they closed them for racially-motivated reasons. Here’s the difference between the 1950s and today. Back then, the outrage for these unethical decisions went directly to those that closed the pools and golf courses -- not to the law. How absurd to blame the laudable goal of racial integration. Yet some will foist indignation on the law when a school cuts a men’s program, rather than upon the school’s failure to plan for the inevitable 40-year growth in women’s athletics. Schools have enormous flexibility to comply with the law, and it never requires cutting any sport. While the Women’s Sports Foundation is heartbroken with the loss of any team (remember, we have fathers, brothers, husbands and sons too!) courts universally reject these “reverse discrimination” challenges, finding that men, as a class, were over-represented in the athletics department.
Despite the publicity received by these Title IX-bashers, the truth is that both men’s and women’s collegiate sports participation opportunities are increasing. In collegiate sports, 412,768 NCAA student-athletes participated; 57.4% male and 42.6% female. In 2009, the average number of student-athletes per NCAA school was 232 for men and 168 women. Since the 1990-91 academic year, female teams increased by 2,268, while male teams are up by 273. High school boys and girls participation figures also reached respective all-time highs with 4,455,740 boys and 3,172,637 girls in 2009-10.
Women athletes are heroes and mentors, leaders and role models. Each female athlete is a living affirmation of why it is important to ensure equal opportunity in sports. Athletes know that future success is built on past successes. National Girls and Women in Sports Day was started 25 years ago to take stock of the truly astounding gains in athletics, and to recognize where the gaps persist. If your daughter’s sports experience isn’t as equitable as her brother’s, you can call the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Advocacy line to get help, or visit our website to learn more at WomensSportsFoundation.org.
Olympic Champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar is the Senior of Director of Advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, a Professor of Law at the Florida Coastal School of Law, and mother of three.